In addition to writing poetry and fiction, he worked as a journalist for the Suburban News Bureau in St. Louis, Missouri, before returning to Tennessee in 1985, where for 15 years he was a reporter for The McKenzie Banner. He is editor and publisher of Thunder Sandwich, an online magazine that features the works of select writers of prose and poetry.
His poems, almost without fail, are autobiographical in nature, as are most of his stories, while others are based on characters he's known in settings with which he is familiar.
"In short, I basically write what I know about, which is, or should be, the first rule of writing," says Chandler. "Most of my poetry is of the 'meat' poet school-that is, it has its roots in reality, in happenings and occurrences. I'm a firm believer in that old adage, 'write what you know.' And what do we know better than the things we've been a part of?" (The McKenzie Banner, article chronicling his inclusion into the Tennessee State Library and Archives).
Born in McKenzie, Tennessee, on July 19, 1941, to Margaret (Collins) and Ova Virgil Chandler, Jimmy Chandler began his life in a sturdy clapboard home on Carroll Street that stands a block from the Paris Pike residence which, as of 2007, he has called home off and on over the past 46 years. Nevertheless, his life experience has had him living and traveling across much of the United States before settling back in his hometown for good in 1985.
He was named “Jimmie Lee”, later changing the spelling of his name to Jimmy after the kids at school advised him that girls were named “Jimmie”. It was enough that he was named after his crazy uncle Roy Lee, his dad’s brother, who is the subject of one of his poems, “Uncle Roy” (Smoke & Thunder, p. 239). But Roy was "crazy" only for the last 20 years of his life, after serving in World War II, an effort which also changed Chandler’s father, who was a foot soldier in George S. Patton’s Third Army.
Jimmy was the first of four Chandler children, including Joyce Lynn, Jerry Lyle and Edward (Eddie) Wayne. His maternal grandparents—Granny and Grandpap—were Ocie (Butler) and Oather Collins. His paternal grandparents—Pawpaw and Mamaw—were Lena (Webb) and Virgil Chandler. Both sets of grandparents are featured in Chandler’s poetry. The dichotomies existing between the poems “Remembering Grandpap” (Smoke & Thunder, p. 52), “Granny” (p. 213) and “Pawpaw” (p. 47) give a glimpse into the formative years of young Chandler, a mixture of adventure, teacakes and madness.
Other family members were Jim’s maternal uncles and aunt: Rufus (whose death by self-inflicted gunshot is chronicled in the poem “Tired of It All” (Smoke & Thunder, p. 14)); James; Earl (whose Twin, Pearl, died at birth and whose own death by stabbing was officially deemed suicide but was suspected to be the result of a marital triangle); and June. His sole paternal uncle was Roy Lee, who died of a heart attack in the veteran’s psychiatric unit referenced in the aforementioned poem.
Chandler persevered. His earliest memories are from the time he was about 18 months old, standing by the side of the road on Carroll Street eating a cookie. Around that same time he recalls PawPaw bringing a lardstand of newborn baby pigs into Pawpaw and Mamaw’s house on Westport Road.
His father left for war in 1943. Jim was five years old when he returned. He recalls it was like a stranger had entered the house on East Walnut. But, he said of the soldier who strode into the house in uniform with a duffle bag over his shoulder, “Mother seemed awfully glad to see him.”
The souvenirs he had brought from Europe — knee high Nazi boots, an officer’s scabbard and dagger, a huge Nazi flag that Jimmy used to tease bulls like a matador—were all lost in boy play in the woods around McKenzie. The mental “souvenirs” were less hard to be rid of, and Chandler recalls his father would cry as memories welled up and spilled over.
When he started school in 1947, Jimmy’s family lived on South Main (also called the “Trezevant Highway” past Fred’s Dollar Store (for a local reference). It was in the third grade that he began writing, an offshoot of stories previously drawn. He recalls the first story he ever wrote was a cops and robbers story based on a sketched scene. With television not yet an influence in his household, the episode marks both his vivid imagination and the onset of a compulsion to write which persisted over the years to come.
The family moved to Lobelville, Tennessee, in 1950, where Jimmy entered the fourth grade. He remembers the five years spent in the town with idyllic fondness, trekking the Perry County, Tennessee hills along the Buffalo River with boyish enthusiasm. “I had fun there,” he says simply, mentioning as a footnote his daddy’s drinking and carousing which were a prelude to his own wild days.
His father had worked a truck route for Don Ward’s coffee, tea and sundry business in McKenzie before working at Tennessee Gas Transmission Co. (TGT) in Lobelville. But then he discovered an opportunity to go pipelining. “So many were making big-ass money on the pipeline,” says Jim. “We were only on the road a year-and-a-half or so but a lot of negative shit happened.”
One wonders what life would have been like without those years on the road.
From the time he was 14, Jimmy spent a year-and-a-half in Stephenville, Texas; Hillsboro, Texas; Madisonville, Texas; Conroe, Texas (nearHouston, Texas); and Aztec, New Mexico, before returning to Conroe.
“I hated that place worse than any place we ever went,” he recalls. The stories Chandler tells of trials endured at these locales are heart rending: such as the time the coach allowed the jocks to beat him up, deciding himself when the pipeliner’s kid “had had enough”.
Chandler was 16 or so when the family returned to their roots in McKenzie, where his situation at school as a sophomore was scarcely improved. But he met Billy Scates at a basketball game in 1957, with whom he became fast and lifelong friends.
Chandler quit school during his junior year in 1958 in order to escape into the Navy.
“I just got sick of it; having trouble with W.O. (Warren, the principal) all the time.”
Jim was just 17 when he decided to join the United States Navy, and his mother was having none of it. His father had left the family earlier the same year, and the Navy looked him up in North Carolina in order to get his OK for Jim’s enlistment.
Chandler’s experiences in the Navy aboard the USS Walker are well chronicled in his poetry and prose, wild days of negligent duty and shore-leave punctuated by sex and booze. It could have been a different tale had Jim, already abused much of life, not been lied to by recruiter’s who assured him he would be assigned the job of air traffic controller. Instead, he was a “deck ape” whose days were spent in the shadow of mop and pail. To be fair, Jim’s genius did not go unnoticed and he squandered further opportunities to excel at new job stations, his attitude already relegated to anger at societal systems that had betrayed him, his solace found in base desires. In the midst of it all, his talent blossomed as he rediscovered writing.
“The first time I seriously thought about becoming a writer was in 1960 when I was coming from Japan back to San Francisco on USS Midway,” he says. “I bought a spiral notebook and started writing a story in it: it was about a bunch of guys hanging around planning a crime."
His writing during the journey home before being discharged was his last act of subordination among many as he hid out and wrote for two weeks while the duty officer searched for him. He explains, “I was a hunted man on that ship--We had a nuclear attack drill the first day and we’d scattered. The duty officer didn’t know my name, and when I’d meet an officer I’d walk real fast like I was going somewhere.”
The Navy stuck with Chandler over the years like a nautical father, firm yet yielding, and bittersweet among memories.
Back in McKenzie, Chandler lived and worked in a motel where he was a desk clerk and bootlegger. There was a typewriter behind the desk and, he says, “I just started writing poems one day.”
A professor at Bethel College (Tennessee), who lived at the motel, inquired one evening, “What are you writing there?”
“I’m trying to write some poems,” Chandler replied. The professor asked for some samples to show a professor of English and came back with good news. “She’d written in the margins,” Chandler recalls, “It said something like, ‘You ought to stick with this, this shows a lot of promise.’ She compared me to some old English poet. That didn’t make sense to me; it was blank verse, crazy kind of stuff. But it gave me the desire to do it better.”
By 1962, Chandler and his old friend and new brother-in-law, Kenneth Esch, were working at Gaines Manufacturing Co. when they decided to move to California. Kenneth and Jim’s sister, Joyce, left for the West Coast of the United States in July and, once they were settled in, Jim followed a few months later. Kenneth set his future on sails when he took a job with General Electric. Jim wasn’t through sowing his wild oats. To top it off, Scates was also in California.
Chandler went to work on the night shift for Wayne Sweeper, a company that made golf carts and street sweepers.
He married 15-year-old Alice Westbooks in Utah on October 16, 1963, after a 2-3 month relationship. The marriage would last 18 tumultuous years, the end of which seemed defined by who could cut the other deepest. Chandler acknowledges he bears the largest portion of the blame over the years. But the union would bring forth two children: Betty (1966) and Norm (1968), and five beautiful grandchildren: Cody, Cassandra, Nick and Emily Acosta and Alison Chandler.
The years were punctuated heavily with writing that was as driven as an obsession. In addition to poetry and prose Chandler amassed journal entries that chronicled every day, sometimes coded to cloak clandestine activities that included a diversity of extramarital relationships that are nevertheless well chronicled in his poetry, as are his deep and lasting friendships with Kenny Sweetland, Scates, and others.
The couple lived in Tennessee for part of their years together, during which time Chandler worked for a mobile home manufacturer, first on the line, later on the road as a serviceman (yielding the subjects for many poems), and then as head of the service department. He also owned and operated a café for a time before the family moved back to California for their final years together.
Chandler’s second marriage to Jo Britt in 1983 took the couple to St. Louis where Chandler would become a journalist again, following his stint at the Pine Bluff (ARK) Commercial in 1969. There, a breakup amid drinking and drugs led Chandler to throw away a multitude of irreplaceable works as well as his cherished typer. In St. Louis, too, Thunder Sandwich was born, a magazine that brought Chandler into contact with many other poets who, in the days before the Internet, communicated by frequent long letters.
Chandler arrived home after the breakup of his marriage haggard and beat by his addictions to alcohol and drugs. He locked himself away with instructions to his mother not to open the door. There he beat his demons cold turkey and continued his journalistic endeavors at The McKenzie Banner, where he worked 15 years before retiring in a fit of pique in 2001, perhaps burned out by years of caring.
In the fall of 2006 Chandler undertook a road trip to North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in order to film small press poets, some of whom he had first come into contact with in the early days of Thunder Sandwich. Chandler said the adventure would likely be his last big adventure with the small press scene, regretting that he was not able to make it to Michigan and the home of small press great, t.k. splake, when the weather took a turn for the worse. That 2-hour video documentary, "Poetry Road--In Search of The Word" became available in September 2007.
"You have to read voraciously if you want to write," Chandler says, "I believe that as much as I believe anything. Not for the purpose of copying any of the styles you read, but to keep packing that storehouse in your mind with fresh ideas, with conceptual learning you can't always get in your everyday life."
As a youth, one of his earliest influences was Mark Twain.
"I loved the folksy charm of his books," says Chandler. "And his characters were all so cleanly drawn and interesting; they were simply alive in the same way I felt alive. You see, I grew up in that kind of rural setting; I knew what it felt like to walk down to the river on a sunny day with a fishing cane over my shoulder and a can of worms in my hand. I could have been Huck Finn."
Later, he immersed himself into the contemporary literature of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Bourjailley, Baldwin, Truman Capote - "practically everyone," he says, citing controversial American writer Henry Miller as "probably the most underrated writer who ever lived" and "one of the more superb tacticians writing in the English language."
Aside from the more obvious virtues and pleasures of reading, Chandler says, "in some way it's an act of discipline to sit down and read a book; it requires a certain level of intent and concentration. Discipline is one of the hardest things for many writers to develop."
In fact, he lost his passion for writing for a time during the 1950s, though he continued reading. When he discovered Beat generation poet Jack Kerouac, Chandler says it was as if he had "run across his own voice out there in America."
"This guy was saying all the things I wanted to say but didn't know how," he says. "And later, when I was in the Navy, I began jotting down things in a spiral notebook; a few lines of something that could be a poem, a plot to a story, things like that. While on the USS Midway, sailing from Yokosuka, Japan back to Treasure Island, California, I started a short story in one of the spirals...It got me fired up to write again."
Back in McKenzie in 1960, he wrote relentlessly, churning out poetry and stories. A Bethel College (Tennessee) professor submitted some of his poems to a University of Mississippi English professor who returned them with comments in the margins - "most of them positive," says Chandler. "I must say I was uplifted when he returned the poems. It was the first encouragement anyone ever gave me."
"Bukowski wrote with simplicity most people can't even begin to capture, just as Hemingway did at his best, or Steinbeck, for that matter," says Chandler. "All of them were masters of the clean, even phrase. Anyone can write a convoluted sentence with a dozen subordinate clauses, but it takes a real writer to pen the ideas that strike you as truths at first glance."
In the early eighties, Chandler started Thunder Sandwich magazine, creating relationships with other poets across the country through correspondence and telephone conversations that evolved into gatherings for poetry readings in Kent, Ohio. The relationships continued with the advent of the Internet at which time Thunder Sandwich converted to an online publication.
"And so here we are all these years later, most of us still cooking even if the rocking chair is getting close for some of us," says Chandler. "It's been a fun trip any way you cut it, and I hope it goes on for some time to come."
* work in Desert Poet 1978/1980
* work in Glyph 1981
* Kid Games (book) 1984
* work in Open 24 Hours 1984
* work in Parnassus 1984
* work in Rawbone 1984
* work in Impetus 1984-1985/2002
* work in Planet Detroit 1985
* St. Louis Blues & Other Poems (book) 1985
* work in Baltimore Sun Sunday magazine 1986
* work in Burnt Orphan 1986
* work in Bouillabaisse 1994
* work in Window Panes 1994
* work in Peshekee River Poetry 1999/2000
* The Word Is All There Is (book) 1999
* work in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry anthology 1999
* work in Savoy 1999
* work in Red Rock Review anthology 2000
* work in Lost Highway anthology 2000
* work in Journal of Modern Writing 2001
* work in Butcher's Block 2000/2001
* featured poet Concrete Wolf 2001
* work in The-Hold 2000-2002
* Inside Jazz (book) 2003
* Smoke & Thunder 276-page collection 2003
* A Touch of Jazz (book) 2004
* Hillbilly Noir (book fiction) 2004
* Parallel Blues (novel) 2006
Jim Chandler Poetry, Art and Fiction: http://jimchandler.net/ Thunder Sandwich: http://www.thundersandwich.com/ Tennessee State Library and Archives: http://state.tn.us/tsla/history/bibliographies/tnauthors1.htm